How Not To Be A Journalist

August 26, 2009

in International,Politics,Religion

The Role Model

Edward R. Murrow was a role model for me, as well as many others. Sadly, he is no longer a figure of significance to what is now called journalism. The following highlights just how far journalism has fallen.

The impetus for this post are the antics of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the recently released Americans held for a few months by the regime in North Korea. They have been identified as journalists. They were not.

For those unaware of my own credentials to pontificate on this subject, I will provide a cursory list. I have been to Korea 51 times, as a soldier, a foreign correspondent, consultant and executive director of an orphanage.

I worked in military intelligence and with the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Three times I turned down recruitment from the CIA. Most members of the other ten intelligence services (there were 11 at that time, now 16) considered the CIA a joke.

Even nearly fifty years ago there were foreign correspondents who were unqualified. Many would go to the foreign office to get their handouts and just do a minimal rewrite. I always thought their employers could have saved a lot of money by sending someone to the embassy in Washington for a copy of the same handout. There were still some real correspondents working though.

Back in those days the networks, the wire services and the larger newspapers had bureaus in many countries around the world. A correspondent would live in a country, learn about it and develop sources who could provide them information and fill in the blanks for them.

Christiane Amanpour is an adequate journalist. She seems intelligent enough to be a good one, perhaps even a great one. But, she can’t report from Teheran one day, Cairo the next, then run off to Tel Aviv before showing up in London and provide any depth of coverage of all these countries.

She is a celebrity. As such, CNN wants to feature her as much as possible. Sometimes they send Wolf Blitzer overseas for a few days. Although Wolf is a fellow alumnus of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, that is insufficient to make him an expert on all of the areas from which he reports. You know there are reporters who have lived their entire life in Washington who have failed to master just that one city.

Back to Ling and Lee. Neither have the background to understand the intricacies of North Korea or our relations with it. Being of Korean extraction is not an all-encompassing qualification.

They could have gotten by interviewing some experts and using extensive quotations. I am not convinced, however, that they are smart enough to comprehend what those experts would say.

Instead of such reportage they decided to do a human interest story. Those are nice to read on occasion but are no substitute for the kind of information we need to understand what is going on or what might come of it.

These two couldn’t even do a human interest story correctly. They still were in over their heads. What did they do that was so wrong? Most obviously they put themselves in jeopardy of being captured by an erratic regime.

First reports said they were captured by the North Koreans on the Chinese side of the border. Later, it was admitted that they had deliberately crossed the border to collect a clump of dirt as a souvenir. Smart, really smart. Truly professional.

Their capture put our government in an unwonted, unwanted, delicate situation. This, however, was neither the extent nor the worst of their indiscretions, as it turned out.

Their human interest story was to be on refugees from the North. They interviewed several in China. They took videos and notes that identified them. Several of these were children. They also identified the safe houses and workers assisting the refugees.

Their videos and notes were used, with the help of the Chinese government, to round up many refugees and workers and to shut down much of the organizations helping the refugees. Not only were refugees captured but the infrastructure to provide help to future refugees was compromised. Ling and Lee reportedly were well-treated, housed in a guest house. The refugees cannot expect similar hospitality.

These two Americans were not the only ones culpable. At least one of the organizations helping the refugees was a religious group. They apparently felt their good intentions were an adequate substitute for knowing what they were doing. It appears that the pair was generously helped by the religious organization to identify the refugees, those helping them and the safe houses.

I have had many occasions to observe religious organizations working to help in various areas. They have never been impressive in their understanding of whatever area in which they involved themselves. They generally have no comprehension of the complexities or ramifications of what they do. Forgive them for they know not what they do.

I remember when people expressed surprise that the Chinese did not appreciate how we had been their friends for so long. They could not understand the hatred the Chinese, not just their government, had for American missionaries.

The United States was a Johnny-Come-Lately to imperialism in China. We proclaimed the Open Door Policy in 1899. Since the European powers and Japan had staked out their territorial claims, we declared that all of China was open to our depredations, er . . . , commerce.

The missionaries merely followed suit in the behavior of the commercial interests of our and other imperial powers. They would go to a village and confiscate the best farm land. They would circle it with a wall. Anyone inside their gates was protected from local law enforcement.

Anyone in trouble with the local authorities knew they would be safe from law enforcement, if they could get inside a missionary compound. The problem was that they couldn’t leave without putting themselves at the mercy of the constabulary.

The missionaries not only had the most productive land in the vicinity, they also had, in effect, slave labor. The locals naturally would be upset that these compounds were becoming dens of thieves, so to speak. The missionaries were able to earn revenue by selling their produce at prices that undercut the local farmers. For some reason these Chinese didn’t see the foreigners as their friends.

The Maoists used the resentment created as a prime recruiting tool to enlist support in the countryside. While the Communists in the Soviet Union concentrated on the urban population, in China the focus was on the rural areas. This difference was a major point of contention between the two parties. The classic Marxists did not consider Mao to be a true Communist.

Anyway, the religious groups involved with the North Korean refugees were not American but their blindness to what they were doing was similar and sprung from the same conviction that their intentions were pure and sufficient.

Good intentions are no more of a qualification than cultural heritage. And an agent and a good hairdresser are inadequate as qualifications to be a real journalist.

I would hazard a guess that the main point is that many situations are more complex than might seem to be the case at first blush. This is especially true when different circumstances prevail. It is also true that many professions require a modicum of education, training, experience, intelligence and recognition of ones limitations.

Crawford Harris - Polymath



Joy August 28, 2009 at 5:02 am

And interesting response to the Laura Ling and Euna Lee fiasco. I would have been more effective if you, the experienced journalist would have stuck to journalistic style and introduced the facts about the two errant reporters in the first three paragraphs. The rest of the article doesn’t really have anything to do with the event in question. It’s good historical information, though.

Crawford August 28, 2009 at 5:54 am

I understand and appreciate your comment. However, my purpose on this blog is broader than simply journalistic. I seek to give readers the benefit of the several perspectives that flow from an unusually varied set of experiences in the clutter that has been my life.

The situation brought back too many memories to ignore and I can’t seem to avoid putting things in some sort of historical perspective. Blame a degree in History from UCLA for that.

That was one response to your observation. Another might be that I now have the excuse of age for a trait I have always exhibited – tangential thinking. One thought leads to another; not always in the expected path. That is sometimes less charitably characterized as, “his mind is beginning to wander.”

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